Critical Provisions

scraps of literary criticism–from the classroom, works in progress, private musings, public soliloquies, barroom disputations, and more.


You spend twenty years reading these poets and these critics, with a sense that they are wanting the same thing as you, and finding it, and helping you to find it, without ever quite knowing what it is, and then the answer arrives, and it’s as general and nebulous as harmony—that thing that is possible, but not usually actually the case, and so present in works of the imagination, in art. But it’s there in Coleridge, in Empson, in Eliot, in Hill, in lots more who both craved it more and knew how to get at it, by words, and words alone (in both the tragic and impressive sense of that phrase, depending on whom), and to whom gratitude is appropriate since they have made poems that are aids for others to find it, and guards against some of the false notes that would pass themselves off for the real thing, and antidotes to the dullness of attention that confuses hope for it with dull satisfaction, complaisant enjoyment. Real enjoyment—the entering into harmony with the world, with others in it, in thought and action—is much finer, much rarer, a hard-won second nature of human life. And once we start talking about harmony, we talk also about judgment–about distinguishing the dissonances to be resolved, determining proportions, and more. On one level, the harmony in a work of literature is found when the work gets within its judgments the condition of those judgments; but on another, the judgments of a work must be held against something beyond it, a world, an experience of time and others.

Like all art, literature restores us to the world, and the world to us, and restores us also to ourselves, to our powers of judgment and the medium in which they are exercised; it returns us to what is real by opening the possible within the actual, reclaiming life from arid and meaningless necessity, and by so doing, establishing the grounds for faith in or reconciliation with the world.

Or else, it is the stick that scratches the itch for the possible; an exercise of the urge of self-consciousness to strip itself away from self.

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